Arrival of a New Child
The arrival of a new child is associated with a great deal of excitement, anxiety and stress for not only the humans, but also your family pet. Some dogs and cats can have a difficult time adjusting to these changes, especially if this is your first child, but preparation and planning will help.
How is my pet likely to respond to the new arrival?
There are so many different variables involved that it is impossible to accurately predict the way that any pet will react to the arrival of new children in the home. However, there are considerations that give some insight into how your pet might react.
How much interaction has your pet previously had with children? How has your pet reacted previously to children of a similar age? Obviously the most serious concern for new or prospective parents is the pet that has previously reacted aggressively, fearfully or both with children. If there have been previous problems of aggression you should not hesitate to contact your veterinary surgeon for specialist advice and possibly referral to determine the safest way, if any, to make the transition. If your pet’s previous problems were with a specific child, a specific age group or under specific circumstances, it may be relatively straightforward (at least in theory) to design a behavioural treatment programme to deal with the behaviour prior to the arrival of your new child. Obviously the sooner you start the preparation the better so remember to ask for advice as soon as you know that a child is going to be joining your family.
If your pet has had little or no exposure to young children or babies, a lack of early socialisation to children may lead to some initial anxiety or fear associated with the sights, sounds and smells of your new child. If there are no unpleasant experiences when your child first arrives, and the first few introductions are positive, there may be no problems. Even if your pet has not reacted aggressively to children in the past, keeping all introductions positive will help to get the relationship between your pet and your new child off to a good start.
Once the initial introductions are over, the next consideration relates to the growth and development of your child. As your child progresses from being carried to rolling, crawling, and then to walking your pets may have trouble adapting to one or more of these changes. Fear, inadvertent challenges, and inadvertent threatening behaviour (such as unexpected hugs and kisses), and playful behaviours could all result in a defensive aggressive response from your pet if you are not aware of how to anticipate, interpret and prevent situations of confrontation. Even when aggression is not displayed it is possible that your pet may begin to display other problem behaviours related to anxiety or fear, such as anorexia, circling, self-mutilation, or home-damaging behaviour (e.g. house-soiling, marking, chewing, digging, scratching).
What can we do to prepare for the new arrival?
Behaviour problems may not develop directly from the presence of your child, but rather from the changes in the household, associated with the new arrival. For most new parents there is a significant potential period of preparation for a baby’s arrival and the best way to minimise problems and help your pet to cope is to make changes gradually, so that they have been completed prior to the arrival of the child. Remember, the aim is to help your pet adapt to changes in the household or lifestyle before the arrival of the baby. Once the baby arrives, there will be far less time to deal with the needs of your pet, and there will be additional variables to which your pet will need to adapt. Even if your pet does begin to exhibit fear or anxiety, during this pre-arrival training, such anxiety will not be associated with the presence of the child.
- Consider any changes that you may need to make in your pet’s routine, housing, play, exercise, or attention, so that adjustments can begin to be made well before the baby’s arrival. Set up the nursery in advance and if the pet is to be kept out of the room, access should be denied before the child’s arrival. Otherwise, if your intention is to allow your pet to continue to enter the room when supervised, begin to accompany your pet into the nursery, so that it can adapt to the new smells and new set-up. Your pet should be allowed to investigate the baby’s room, blankets, and new furniture, and praised in their presence or given a small food treat so that it can develop a positive association with each of these new cues.
- Some pets might become anxious or fearful as a result of any of the new and different stimuli associated with the sights, sounds, or smells of the new child. New activities associated with child care can be practised in front of pets so that they can become familiar with them. There are specifically designed CDs available which enable carefully controlled introduction of the sounds that are associated with babies and small children and these can be used to decrease the significance of these noises before the baby arrives so that they do not induce a high level of arousal in your pet. Activities such as holding a doll wrapped in a blanket, taking your dog for a walk beside a pushchair or pram, or even going through the motions of changing a nappy and applying baby powder will simulate some of the experiences to which your pet will soon be exposed. If there is any sign of anxiety associated with any of these situations, then more formal reward-based training should be practised and repeated until your pet exhibits no stress around these events. By providing a favoured chew toy, giving a food reward, or providing extra affection during these activities, your pet may actually learn to enjoy these new experiences.
Once your pet shows no fear or anxiety in some or all of these situations, you may want to enlist the help of some friends or relatives with young children.
Special exercises for dogs
- Reviewing or upgrading obedience skills is essential so that you can safely and effectively control your dog in all situations. Obedience training should be reviewed , in a variety of locations and circumstances. Practise each command in different rooms of the home, in the garden, while out on walks, and when visitors come to the home. Concentrate on those commands that are presently the least successful, using commands and rewards to achieve success and then gradually shaping the response so that your pet stays for progressively longer times, comes from greater distances and will heel and follow even when there are distractions. Any existing behaviour problems should be resolved before the arrival of your baby.
- In order to create positive associations with the presence of children your dog can be taken for a walk while your friend’s child is pushed in the pushchair or pram. A baby can be carried around the home or nursed in the presence of your pet. Older children can be encouraged to play at the opposite end of a room or garden from where your pet may be, always ensuring that there is active adult supervision of their activity. Physical barriers, such as baby gates, can be used to ensure that your dog can observe the play without the risk of any physical involvement in the proceedings. Formal training to minimise risk can be done. Your dog must be well controlled, preferably with a lead and head collar, and given food rewards and/or play to ensure a pleasant association is built with potentially stressful events. A basket type muzzle could also be applied to ensure additional safety, especially when being exposed to new situations in which you have no way of knowing your dog’s response. By the end of the visit it may even be possible to let your dog interact with the child under strict adult supervision, but only if he remains friendly and shows no fear or anxiety.
Special measures for cats
- For cats, one of the most important adaptations to the arrival of your new child is that related to changes that will be needed in your cat’s home. Although fear and anxiety to the sights and sounds of your new baby are possible, and the use of the specifically designed CDs has been reported to be beneficial for cats, adapting to changes in the household can often be the most trying challenge for your cat. For example, obtaining new furniture, altering your cat’s feeding, sleeping, elimination or play areas, and trying to keep your cat out of certain locations such as the cot, should all be considered before the arrival of your baby. To reduce the chances of your cat marking new furniture with urine or scratch marks, the first few introductions to the new areas should be well supervised. Once your cat has investigated and rubbed against the new furniture, spraying is far less likely. Similarly, when the cot or Moses basket is first set up, your cat may wish to mark the area, to investigate, or even to sleep in it. If you do not want your cat to have access to the room with the cot or Moses basket it is better to start the restriction of access well before your baby arrives.
What should be done when my baby arrives?
Do not try to rush the situation and always avoid any situations that might lead to fear, anxiety or discomfort in your baby’s presence. Make all associations and experiences in your baby’s presence positive. Maintain or even increase the amount and type of training, exercise, and play.
Even a curious and affectionate pet may have some problems adjusting to your new arrival. Jumping up to greet when your baby is being carried, barking during your baby’s sleep, raiding the nappy bucket, licking your baby’s face, or cuddling up to sleep against a small baby who is still unable to shift position are just a few of the concerns and potential hazards that pet owners may need to deal with. It is essential to actively supervise all interactions between your pet and baby and to keep your pet out of your baby’s room during sleep times.
Ensuring that your dog is well controlled and responsive to obedience training commands is very useful and for some dogs, leaving a lead attached (preferably to a head collar) is a useful way to ensure additional control. However, the lead that you have previously used for exercising your dog may induce signs of high arousal and it is therefore best to use a houseline for control in the house and to associate the presence of a trailing line indoors with situations of low arousal and activity. Do not only attach the houseline when your baby is present but rather attach it as a routine piece of equipment so that it does not induce any expectation in your pet.
You may find it useful to keep your pet’s claws well trimmed in order to avoid any accidents through scratching.
The most important aspect of retraining is to reward your pet for obedient and relaxed behaviour in the presence of your child. In many households there will be less time and energy available for your pet. While focused on your child, or attending to the chores associated with parenthood, your pet may be ignored, disciplined for approaching too close, or confined to a different area of the home. Your pet may still receive its play, exercise, affection, food and attention, but often not until your baby is finally asleep or is under the care of some other family member. Your pets can soon learn that the presence of the baby is a cue for lack of attention, confinement, or even punishment, while the absence of the baby is a cue for ‘good things’ to happen. This must be reversed. Every effort should be made to allow your pet into the room for food, play or affection when your baby is present. Feed your pet when the baby is being fed, or have another family member give affection to your pets, play with them, or do some reward training (stay, go to your bed) when your child is in the room. Take your dog outside for play or a walk when you are taking your child out. The aim is to teach your pet that ‘good things’ are most likely to happen in the presence of your child.
What should be done if aggression arises?
The occurrence of aggressive behaviour toward children may be motivated by many things, but undoubtedly animals behaving in this way feel uneasy about the presence of the child. Such behaviour is very upsetting, regardless of its reasons and there are some important things for parents to consider:
- An immediate decision on whether to keep and work with your pet or remove it from the home must be made and an honest risk assessment should be a part of that decision making process.
- Aggressive behavioural signs, particularly related to fear, may arise immediately when your child is brought into the home, or may be delayed and only begin as your child becomes more mobile. It is therefore important not to be complacent if your pet appears to react well to the first arrival and you should still work to prepare your pet for the forthcoming changes in your child’s behaviour and the specific challenges that these can present.
- As your child grows a little older, he may, from your pet’s point of view begin to threaten them especially by approaching key resources, like the food bowl, sleeping area etc. Active supervision of your child’s activity and pre-emptive action to ensure that your pet’s vital resources are out of reach of your child are both going to be important. The relationship between a pet and a child is a two way process and it is important to educate both parties so that they each learn to appreciate the needs and feelings of the other.
- As children grow older still they may start to interact with your pets as if they were another person, and simple things like giving a hug or leaning over to give a kiss, can actually appear very threatening to a dog that is not used to this type of interaction. It is also important to remember that children are often very inconsistent in their behaviour and may engage in high arousal activity. Both of these factors can make children difficult for pets to understand and can lead to tension between them. Any interaction between your child and your pet must be actively supervised by an adult.
- For most cases where aggressive behaviour is being displayed, especially when that behaviour is directed toward children, the guidance and advice of a suitably qualified behavioural counsellor is strongly suggested since it will be necessary to make an accurate diagnosis, determine the prognosis (the chances of safe and effective treatment) and guide you through a treatment programme safely. Do not hesitate to ask your veterinary surgeon for referral to a suitably qualified professional Although some cases may be treated quickly and safely, most cases require extensive precautions to prevent injuries and a great deal of time, effort and commitment to follow the treatment plan.
- Regardless of the underlying motivation for aggressive behaviour, dogs which have behaved inappropriately should be kept under strict active supervision by adults at all times. They should ideally be kept on a lead preferably with a head collar, and in certain cases muzzled, when in the presence of small children. It is also important to remember that no dog, regardless of its behavioural history, should ever be left unattended with a young child.
- Cats which have displayed aggressive behaviour should be confined away from small children except when they are in a carrier, on a lead and harness, or actively supervised.